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News of the World advocated truth, but published whatever it liked

News of the World, the racy, muck-raking 168-year-old newspaper that was Britain's most popular tabloid, has died in London after a long illness. The funeral will be held Sunday, with publication of its final issue.

James Murdoch, chairman of News International, the paper's owner, made the death announcement Thursday afternoon to stunned relatives.

Although Mr. Murdoch did not invoke the term, observers believe his decision constituted a form of corporate euthanasia.

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An autopsy is yet to be conducted, but there exists a broad media consensus about the specific cause of death: a cancer within.

In the ongoing battle to maintain circulation and stay relevant to readers in the electronic age, News of the World editors and reporters had conspired to adopt news-gathering practices that plainly violated ethical codes of conduct.

For five years, the shamelessly titillating paper has been at the centre of Britain's scandal over mobile-phone hacking. The scandal had already sent one reporter, Clive Goodman, to prison, and forced a former editor, Andy Coulson, to resign his post as spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron and risk arrest himself. But with fresh revelations that it had bribed police officers for phone information, and suggestions that its clandestine campaign was far more extensive than previously thought, the News of the World had become an enormous political albatross.

Founded in October, 1843, by John Browne Bell and selling for three pence, News of the World boasted in its first edition that its motto was truth.

"Our practice is the fearless advocacy of the truth," it declared. "[We] will seek for the patronage of no party … will conceal neither the merits nor the faults of any party, but … will aim alone at doing good service to old England, by maintaining her glory and security, the prosperity of all classes of the people"

Like many corporate mission statements, this one was not worth the paper on which it was printed.

Even then, catering to the newly literate Victorian working class, News of the World aggressively pursued flash and trash, building readership and fending off its rivals, the Sunday Mirror and the Sunday People.

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For decades, it maintained its circulation lead, hitting four million in 1939, as the clouds of war gathered, and a peak of 8.4 million in 1950, making it the world's biggest-selling newspaper. A decade later it merged with The Empire News, a Sunday newspaper for citizens of the Commonwealth.

In 1969, making his debut on Fleet Street, the ambitious Australian Rupert Murdoch – James's father – took control, outlasting another media mogul, Robert Maxwell, in a fierce struggle for the paper.

Since then, it's been run according to Mr. Murdoch's house rules – a relentless quest for readers and advertisers, fuelled by unapologetic sensationalism. That combustible mixture of grisly crime and adulterous sex was leavened, if intermittently, with public-service campaigns (including an anti-pedophile campaign in 2000), and some genuine investigative exclusives. Among these was its 2010 exposé of match-fixing by Pakistan's national cricket team.

On those occasions when News of The World overstepped its reach, it happily appeased offended parties – soccer superstars David Beckham and Wayne Rooney and Formula One racing president Max Mosley among them – with liberal libel settlements. Other suits are pending.

Readership conferred political clout, forcing a parade of aspiring British leaders to seek Mr. Murdoch's editorial benediction and pay court. Mr. Cameron was only the latest beneficiary of the paper's editorial support.

Until the recent hacking imbroglio, that network of influence at 10 Downing Street and in Parliament provided a degree of insulation. But having inflicted damage to the Prime Minister and his friends, the scandal effectively removed the newspaper's political cover.

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What remains unknown is whether the mercy killing at News of World will be sufficient to contain the scandal and rescue Mr. Murdoch's business interests.

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About the Author

Based in Toronto, Michael Posner has been with the Globe and Mail since 1997, writing for arts, news and features.Before that, he worked for Maclean's Magazine and the Financial Times of Canada, and has freelanced for Toronto Llfe, Chatelaine, Walrus, and Queen's Quarterly magazines. More

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